Sunday, 23 August 2009

Elizabeth Of The Sealed Knot

Lady Elizabeth Dysart by Peter Lely circa 1654

Elizabeth Murray, Lady Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale, gained greater power and position than any other woman not of royal blood in the history of Scotland. Of her private life, and her real ambitions, we learn little from the writings of her contemporaries. Bishop Burnet left a full sketch of her character as it appeared to him, but his words tend to be coloured with his prejudice and personal spite.

She was a woman of great beauty, but of far greater parts. She had a wonderful quickness of apprehension, and an amazing vivacity in conversation. She had studied not only divinity and history, but mathematics and philosophy. She was violent in every thing she set about, a violent friend, but a much more violent enemy. She had a restless ambition, lived at a vast expense, and was ravenously covetous; and would have stuck at nothing by which she might compass her ends. She had blemishes of another kind, which she seemed to despise, and to take little care of the decencies of her sex.

Elizabeth Murray was, in some ways, the Mata Hari of the 17th Century, she courted Cromwell and was reputedly a member of The Sealed Knot, dedicated to restore Charles II to his throne. As King Charles I 'whipping boy' in his youth, her father, William Murray was in constant attendance on the king, so Elizabeth was brought up with the royal children and her allegience formed at a young age.

She spent the winter of 1643/1644 at the Oxford Court with her parents and three sisters, where Charles I had fled after the Battle of Edgehill. At seventeen, Elizabeth saw first hand how difficult life had become for many followers of the king.

When Oliver Cromwell set up his headquarters at Kingston Upon Thames in 1647, despite the fact her father, now Earl Dysart, had been arrested for spying for the Royalist cause the previous year, and was acquitted after months in the Tower of London, her mother, Catherine Bruce Murray, invited Cromwell to dine at Ham House, their Jacobite mansion on the River Thames.

The meeting must have been a difficult one, Elizabeth having always been scornful and afraid of the Roundhead army who made several attempts to seize Ham House and the family's estate, thus threatening to leave them all homeless. During the same month, King Charles I was under guard at Hampton Court, and it stands to reason Elizabeth and her mother would have been in contact with him as Ham was only five miles down river.

There is no evidence that Elizabeth or her family were involved in the plan to help Charles I escape Hampton Court, but a conspiracy certainly exsted and he did in fact escape, not to the continent as many urged, but the Isle of Wight. Some of their friends were involved, including William Murray and the Earl of Lauderdale, and yet no arrests of any Murrays were made, despite Roundhead soldiers flooding the neighbourhood afterwards in search of the king.

It was a tribute to Catherine Bruce and Elizabeth's diplomacy, that Elizabeth not only charmed Cromwell, but when she pleaded with him for the life of John Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale who had been captured after his participation in the Battle of Worcester in 1651, it surprised many when his sentence of death was commuted to imprisonment.

At various times during the wars and the Interregnum, Elizabeth was rumoured to have been not only Earl Lauderdale's mistress when they were both married to other people, but Cromwell's mistress too. Suspected of being a spy for both sides, she was lampooned in the pamphlets:

“She is Besse of my heart, she was Besse of old Noll;
She was once Fleetwood’s Besse, now she’s Bess of Atholle;
She’s Besse of the Church, and Besse of the State,
She plots with her tail, and her lord with his pate.
With a head on one side, and a hand lifted hie,
She kills us with frowning and makes us to die.

Elizabeth marrried Sir Lionel Tollemache 3rd Bart in 1648, a non political Suffolk Landowner with a large estate of his own who didn't attract either Royalist or Parliamentary attention. The choice was most likely a clever plot by Catherine Bruce to secure the Ham Estate, for part of their marriage contract was to make over the house and lands to Elizabeth.

The marriage was a successful one, and Elizabeth bore him eleven children in twenty two years, five of whom lived to adulthood. Lionel died in 1669, and three years later, in 1672, Mary Lauderdale passed away in Paris, where, gossip said, she had fled to distance herself from the burgeoning friendship between her husband and Elizabeth.

Six weeks later, to the outrage of London society, John Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale and Elizabeth Tollemache were married. Elizabeth then came into her own as Duchess of Lauderdale, her husband was a member of Charles II's CABAL ministry and they lived at Ham like royalty, extending and refurbishing the house and grounds to its magnificent height.

Unfortunately, as with many fairytales, the old widowed queen gets left alone in her castle which becomes her prison as her resources, and friends, drift away or die. She outlived her second husband by seventeen years and was buried in Petersham Church with no marking on her resting place. From what I have read about her, I think she would have been furious!
Ham House on the River Thames at Richmond

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

What I did during my summer vacation

Many apologies for missing last month's blog post. I was traveling in Germany, doing research for my current work-in-progress, a novel exploring the life of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), visionary, abbess, and polymath.

Now we shall embark on a brief excursion into the 12th century.

Hildegard was born of a noble family in the village of Bermersheim near Alzey in Rheinhessen. Nothing remains of her family home, but here is the view of the village church:

At the age of eight, according to most sources, Hildegard's parents offered her, their tenth child, as a tithe to the Church. The little girl was sent to the remote monastery of Disibodenberg where she was enclosed in an anchorage with Jutta von Sponheim, a noblewoman only seven years older than herself. Here are pictures of what they think are the ruins of the Frauenklause, or the women's anchorage:

Even today Disibodenberg feels like a very lonely, forlorn place.

Following Jutta's premature death, thought to be caused in part by her extreme aceticism, Hildegard was elected Magistra of her small community of nuns. In sharp contrast to Jutta, Hildegard advocated a lifestyle based on healthy moderation as opposed to constant fasting and mortification of the flesh. She began work on her magnum opus, Scivias, before taking the radical step to break free of the monks of Disibodenberg and establish her own abbey at Rupertsberg on the Rhine. Nothing remains of Rupertsberg Abbey today but it stood just off to the left side of this picture:

After initial hardships, Hildegard's abbey at Rupertsberg flourished and here she wrote on subjects as diverse as medicine, natural science, and human sexuality. She healed with herbs and gemstones; corresponded with religious and secular leaders who sought her advice; and composed an entire body of sacred music. Her visions, immortalized in brilliant illuminations, earned her the title Sibyl of the Rhine.

She eventually founded a daughter abbey at Eibingen, across the Rhine, just above Ruedesheim. Though the original abbey no longer remains, the new Abbey of St. Hildegard, built in 1904, is home to a community of Benedictine nuns who continue Hildegard's work. They also grow and sell excellent wine which you can taste in their giftshop. Hildegard believed that wine was very wholesome! In fact, the Rule of Saint Benedict said that people in holy orders were allowed to consume half a liter a day. Hmmmmmm . . .

Here is a panoramic view of the abbey taken from the opposite bank of the Rhine:

What Hildegard achieved in her lifetime was unprecedented for a 12th century woman. Although Saint Paul forbade women to preach, Hildegard went on several preaching tours and was not afraid of locking horns with emperors and popes. She had to pay a steep price for her independence of mind. When she was in her seventies, she and her nuns were the subject of an interdict, or collective excommunication, which was lifted only shortly before her death. She died, as she had lived, seeing visions of the world beyond this one.

Next month my blog post will return to the 17th century, I promise!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


Showing an early penchant for heroes who are “tall, dark and handsome”, I first fell in love with Tom Fairfax when I read “The Rider of the White Horse” by one of my favourite children’s writers, Rosemary Sutcliff. The book spanned the period from the start of the English Civil War through to Tom’s appointment as the Commander of the New Model Army.
Ah! You say, but wasn’t Oliver Cromwell the Commander of the New Model Army? Not at all. Until 1651, Cromwell was Tom Fairfax’s second-in-command and yet history seems to forget about this quietly spoken leader of men. It is my avowed intent (and Rosemary’s!) to put Thomas Fairfax on the stage where he belongs.
The Fairfax family came to prominence in North Yorkshire in the mid sixteenth century, establishing a country seat at Denton. It seemed that all the Fairfax men were destined to be soldiers. Tom’s father, Ferdinando Fairfax, lost three brothers in various wars on the continent. He survived, earning a sour approbation from his own soldier father (another Thomas, the first Lord Fairfax) “I sent him into the Netherlands to train him up as a soldier, and he makes a tolerable county justice”. In fact Ferdinando had a distinguished career in public life sitting as a member of the House of Commons in the last 3 parliaments of James I and first 4 of Charles I and went on to be a solid commander in the early years of the English Civil Wars.
Ferdinando’s eldest son, Thomas (our hero) was born at Denton in 1612, the eldest son of eight children (2 sons and 6 daughters). His mother died in 1617 and his father did not remarry again until 1647. Tom’s childhood was the unremarkable life of the son of a country gentleman. He was extremely close to his grandfather who taught him a lifelong love of horses. Both of them would write treatises on horses!
At 14 he went to Cambridge and then to Gray’s Inn in London for some grounding in the law (a very useful skill for a gentleman to have). However he was never called to the bar and the family leaning towards adventure called him. He and a friend, John Hotham (more on him later!), went over the Low Countries to join the English forces in Lord Vere’s company under the Prince of Orange.
But the life of a soldier did not immediately appeal to him and he moved on to France, where he (not unlike our young travelers of today) lived until he ran out of funds and had to return home.
At 20 he returned to England but lingered in London trying to persuade his grandfather that he had an earnest desire to “see the army of Sweden”. Old Sir Thomas was not impressed, referring to his grandson as a “flibbertigibbet”, and despite the intercessions of other members of his family, he was summoned home to Denton to begin a career as a country gentleman. Sadly his grandfather died in 1640 and did not live to see his grandson fulfil his potential.
In 1635 negotiations began for a marriage between Tom and Anne, the daughter of Lord Vere (under whom Tom had served in the Low Countries). Like many marriages of the time, it was a business arrangement in which neither Tom nor Anne had any real say. They were married in 1637 and while it was no love match, there is no doubt that they developed a great deal of affection and respect for each other. More on the feisty Anne, in another blog.
Early in their marriage, Tom was afflicted with the first sign of ill health that would plague him all his life. He suffered from “the stone”. His mother in law remarked “Stray fits seize upon his spirits. I perceive he hath a weak body, and more circumspection for the preservation of his health will be required, especially against melancholy, which is, I think, the ground of it all.”
Tom recovered and the young couple moved to Yorkshire, staying firstly with the cantankerous Lord Fairfax and Denton and then in their own home at Nun Appleton. Their daughter Mary was born in 1638. A second daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1640 but died shortly after leaving the Fairfax’s with just Mary.
As Tom and Anne settled into married life, events in England were beginning to take a serious turn. Charles I was raising troops in Yorkshire to march against the Scots for repudiating the prayer book, abolish bishops and adopting the National Covenant. Tom and his father raised a troop of 160 men and he marched north to Berwick where he was knighted by the King in January 1640.
In less than two years this quiet, thoughtful man of uncertain health would take arms against the same man who had knighted him and prove himself one of the most able commanders in English history.

(PS He earned his nickname from his dark looks, not from any flaw in his character!)

Next Month: Part 2: “The Rider of the White Horse”.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Agecroft Hall

Along the banks of the James River in Richmond, Virginia, stands a Tudor estate named Agecroft Hall. The house is not a copy, but a manor house actually built in Lancashire, England in the 15th century. Presently, it's recreated to 16th- and- 17th-century décor, making a research trip to Richmond much easier on my budget than a flight across the Atlantic. How did a historic treasure wind up in the heart of Virginia?

During the 19th century, the house fell into disrepair, and in the 1920s, it was sold at auction. Thomas C. Williams, Jr., who became wealthy from tobacco and banking, purchased the house, had it dismantled, crated, shipped across the ocean, and painstakingly rebuilt on the site where it stands today. If he had not transported the house from Manchester, it would have been demolished and lost to history forever. Unfortunately, Mr. Williams only enjoyed his home for a year before his death. His widow, however, lived there for nearly forty years before the upkeep of the house and grounds became too much for her.

Now a museum, Agecroft Hall is open to the public, where writers, like me, can find all sorts of fun details to incorporate into my upcoming novels. After a short film introduction of the manor home's history, I was swept into the 17th century. My first sight was a dead cat (not real!) in the wall to ward off witches. You can bet the cunning woman in my story is less than amused!

Tourists then proceed to the Great Hall with oak-paneled walls, military armor, tapestries, and a hand-carved table with benches. Rushes are off to the side to give a sampling of what life would have been like. The room has a huge leaded-glass window that made the journey from England without a single pane breaking.

In the Great Parlour a lantern clock only shows the hour, and a draught chair has a copy of John Gerard's The Herbal at hand for easy consultation. The dining parlour is where more intimate meals would have been served than the Great Hall. It has cupboards for silver, and samplings of period food, such as dove.

An intricately carved staircase winds the way upstairs. On the second floor are the bed chambers with massive poster beds, again with complex carvings, one that includes gargoyles and angels. Outside the house is the kitchen, complete with cooking pots and period correct bowls and pitchers. There's even a rat in the drain!

After a tour of the house, we strolled the gardens. The sunken garden has an array of flowers with a pond at the center. The herb garden is planted with medicinals known to those living during the 16th and 17th centuries. Nearby stands the still house where the lady of the manor would distill the herbs and make perfume.

Other gardens include the Knot Garden and Tradescant Garden. The latter was named after John Tradescant, a botanist and gardener, who traveled to Virginia in 1637 for the purpose of gathering plants with the intent of introducing them to English gardens. Before leaving the estate, I took a quick walk through the turf maze. Though it wasn't difficult, it was fun nonetheless. All in all, it was an enjoyable and successful research trip.

Kim Murphy

Saturday, 1 August 2009

In search of the Théâtre du Marais

My on-going research into the theatrical world in mid-17th century Paris is rather like working on a jigsaw puzzle. My characters are involved in the Théâtre du Marais — the Marais Theater — a converted tennis court in the Marais district in Paris. There were a number of unused tennis courts in Paris — the sport had gone out of vogue mid-century — and the long shape and high ceilings made such a structure ideal to be recycled as a theater. Plus, such courts already had spectator stands built in.

As a novelist, one challenge is simply getting characters in and out of spaces. This is particularly challenging for the writer of historical fiction. What were these spaces like? What was the layout of such a theater at that time?

I've been lucky to find one clue — this model of a similar theatre at the time, the Hôtel de Bourgogne. (Built in 1548, it was the first public theater in France.)

The open space in the middle was the famous pit, where the often unruly spectators stood.

On each side are the galleries and boxes for the wealthy. They were too busy socializing with each other to care that their sight-lines were not very good. The galleries on the third level at the top were known as paradis, or heaven.

The best view, it seems to me, would have been from the amphitheater benches facing the stage.

French theater differed from the English in the use of Italian-style sliding painted panels — called wing-and-shutter scenery — that created a perspective effect. These flats were pulled back and forth by poles attached to wheeled machinery under the stage, turned by a crank. (Imagine the noise!)

Although on a typical night there would likely be around 400 spectators, such a theater could hold as many as 1500, half in the galleries, and half in the pit. As many as 50 rich noblemen could sit on the stage, milling around and talking — rather like going to a performance in a bar today.

On my last research trip to Paris, I came quite by accident upon the site of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. This time, a Net-wander has given me the information I've long been looking for: the site of the Théâtre du Marais. It was located at today's 90 rue Vieille du Temple, close to the Musee des Archives. Obviously, I need to return to Paris and have a look for myself.

The model of the Hôtel de Bourgogne was made by Christa Williford, University of Warwick and Bryn Mawr College. See this site for more information.